What to do if you catch norovirus – the winter vomiting bug

Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation
30 October 2019
Next review due October 2022

Norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, is the most common stomach bug in the UK. It’s also highly contagious, so spreads easily in environments such as schools, cruise ships and hospitals.

Although it’s called the ‘winter’ vomiting bug, you can get it at any time of the year. However, it’s much more common during the colder months (November to April).

With winter approaching and the bug becoming more widespread, it’s important to be alert to the symptoms of norovirus. Here I’ll explain how to manage those symptoms and what you can do to prevent it spreading further.

Who can get norovirus?

Unfortunately, no matter your age or how healthy you are, anyone can get norovirus. Someone who catches it will be immune for a short while afterwards, but this won’t last. So there’s even a chance you might be unlucky enough to get it more than once in your life.

For most people, having norovirus is unpleasant but generally mild. They’ll usually make a full recovery in one to two days. However, for vulnerable people – babies, older people and those with existing health problems – it can be more serious.

How could I catch norovirus?

Norovirus is highly contagious, so you can catch it and pass it on to others very easily. It can spread very quickly in closed environments, such as hospitals, schools and care homes.

You can become infected by accidentally getting particles of the virus in your mouth and ingesting it. These particles are from faeces or vomit from infected people. This can happen via contaminated food and water, or by touching unclean surfaces, such as door handles and cutlery.

What are norovirus symptoms?

Norovirus is one of the main causes of gastroenteritis. Symptoms tend to come on suddenly, with the most common being:

  • nausea (this may be the only symptom in mild cases)
  • projectile vomiting
  • watery diarrhoea

Tummy cramps are also common and in some cases it can cause fever.

How long does norovirus last?

Although it’s unpleasant, the good news is that the bug is short-lived and should be out of your system within one to two days. Diarrhoea may last a little longer.

If you think you’ve caught norovirus, it’s important not to visit hospitals, your GP surgery, friends, or relatives in care homes or other public spaces. This is because you could easily spread the infection to other people, and potentially to people who already have poor health.

If your symptoms carry on for more than two or three days, your symptoms get worse or you already have a serious illness, then phone your GP. They’ll be able to give you advice about what to do and assess if you need further examination or treatment.

Look for signs of dehydration in children and elderly, such as becoming lethargic or irritable. Nappies may be dry or they may be urinating less.

Is there a treatment for norovirus?

There’s no specific medicine to treat norovirus and antibiotics won’t work because it’s a viral infection, not a bacterial one. The best thing you can do is to manage the norovirus symptoms, and stay hydrated, replacing the fluid you’re losing through vomiting and diarrhoea.

Children can become dehydrated more quickly, so you may wish to give your child a rehydration solution – a pharmacist can advise you on this.

What should I do if I catch norovirus?

If you catch norovirus, here are some top tips on looking after yourself and getting on the road to recovery.

  • Don’t spread it. Norovirus is highly contagious so you don’t want to risk passing it on to others, especially vulnerable people. Don’t visit your GP surgery, hospital, friends, or relatives in care homes.
  • Stay at home. There’s no medicine to treat norovirus, so for most people there will be little the GP can do. It usually only lasts a couple of days, so it’s best to stay in the comfort of your own home, ride it out and rest. This will also reduce the risk of spreading it to others. Don’t return to work, or send your children back to school or nursery, until 48 hours after vomiting and diarrhoea has stopped.
  • Drink enough fluids. When you have norovirus symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhoea, you need to replace the fluids you’re losing in order to prevent dehydration. The best thing you can do is drink water regularly. Take frequent, small sips of water. You can buy rehydration solutions over the counter from your pharmacy. This is a powder that is made up into a solution by adding water. It contains the right balance of sugars and salts for your body to encourage rehydration. Ask someone to pick these up for you to help prevent spreading the virus.
  • Keep babies and infants hydrated. Sports drinks and fizzy drinks aren’t suitable for children with the norovirus – stick to water or weak squash, or give a rehydration solution. If you breastfeed your child, you should continue breastfeeding as normal.
  • Don’t take medicines to stop diarrhoea. It’s best not to take medicines to stop diarrhoea, such as loperamide. These only temporarily prevent symptoms. In some cases, they could make you more ill.
  • Wash your hands. Thoroughly washing your hands, especially after going to the toilet, changing nappies or before preparing food, is essential to prevent spreading the illness to others. Don’t rely on alcohol gels (hand sanitisers), as these do not kill norovirus – always wash your hands with warm water and soap (liquid is better to use than bars of soap).
  • Disinfect surfaces. Thoroughly clean hard surfaces, such as door handles, taps and kitchen surfaces, with hot water, detergents and disinfectant. Wash soiled clothes straightaway at 60 degrees or higher. This will reduce the risk of others coming into contact with the virus. Don’t prepare food for other people until you’re fully recovered – at least 48 hours after your symptoms have gone away.
  • Getting medical help. If you become severely dehydrated, you may need hospital treatment with fluids given through a vein in your arm (an intravenous drip). If you think you or someone you’re caring for is severely dehydrated, call your GP surgery or NHS 111.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Luke James
Dr Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation

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    • Viral gastroenteritis. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed September 2019
    • How are oral rehydration solutions used in the treatment of dehydration? Medscape., updated December 2018

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